How to raise the emotional intelligence of your team

Written by Hugo Minney CMgr and Roger Martin Tuesday 08 December 2020
Getting stuff done is what managers do. But do you wonder how smoother that might be if your team’s emotional intelligence went up a few notches?

The pandemic has brought many emotions to the fore: gratitude for key workers, pride in those who overcome adversity, concern about an uncertain future, sadness because of distance from (or loss of) loved ones. And more.

We’re not typically encouraged to show our emotions in a work environment. But that’s changing, and not just because of the pandemic, but because of a growing understanding that what we think, feel and do are intrinsically connected up.

Our intelligence quotient (IQ – awareness of what and how we think) and our emotional quotient (EQ – awareness of what we feel) aren’t as separate as we imagine. Our head is connected to our heart and gut, just as the song says about bones! We’re more likely to decide with heart and gut, and then perhaps justify it with our head, especially in stressed or threatening conditions such as under this Covid-19 cloud.

So why don’t people talk about emotions at work, when it affects work so much?

We ask this regularly – here are some of the answers we’ve heard from clients:

  • We don’t have time for it. Task-focused environments with performance measurements often shut down discussion about anything other than the task.
  • It opens up a can of worms. As managers, we want to solve problems – but when the problem could be complicated or unsolvable, like a colleague’s troubling emotions, then it’s tempting to make sure the subject doesn’t come up.
  • It’s prying into people’s private lives. It’s easy to conflate showing concern for someone’s welfare with being a nosy parker! In the stiff-upper-lip culture so often associated with the UK, we’ve learnt to avoid talking about “feelings”.
  • Work is not the place for it. This view reflects a belief that family, religious traditions or therapy rooms are the more appropriate places in which to have conversations about emotions.

We work with many teams, and these ways of thinking come up often as part of the problem that we’re going to need to solve.

But you have the tools, the in-built intelligence, to explore emotions. Consider these two questions:

  1. What do you feel when performing at your best?
  2. What do you feel on those occasions when you wish you’d done a better job?

Performing at your best

People often say they felt at ease when performing at their best; that their actions seemed effortless. They were in a state of flow because they had clarity about the benefits they were to deliver for others. They were in a good state to listen to others, and the right decisions often seemed obvious. There’s a strong correlation between feeling good and performing well.

Wishing you’d done a better job

Reflections on how you felt on occasions when we could have done better can reveal...

  • Anxiety about the outcome – think sales pitch to client or job interview
  • Annoyance over others’ unpleasantness – think irate callers or colleagues
  • Overwhelm under pressure – think planning meetings when what’s expected and the resources available don’t match
  • Powerlessness to act – think someone senior pushing back when challenged
  • Being scared of being in the wrong – think of giving advice in uncertain situations

It’s hard to be at your best when operating from these emotional states. It’s even harder when we take these pretty powerful emotions as true and close down exploration of alternatives – something we all do once our survival brain gets into gear. Our focus is on just getting through this. And it understandably limits our capacity to think creatively and communicate well.

Being emotionally intelligent

How do you turn your own emotional states around? How do you do this for your team members?

When we ask managers how they’ve done this, they say how vital it is being able to talk about feelings. You may have heard of the old adage "a problem shared is a problem halved". It wholly applies here. Making space to talk about difficult emotions, and to listen or be listened to without judgement or criticism, releases the tensions they create and makes way for new perspectives.

For example, anxiety about a negative outcome can cause paralysis that makes the outcome even worse. Thoughts like "win-at-all-costs", and "must-get-it-absolutely-right" can be anxiety-inducing. When we have this state in our head we can’t help but leak it through our behaviour – angry or sad expressions, squeaky voice, reduced capacity to listen, etc. It doesn’t have to be the manager, but someone needs to step in and talk through what the team member is going through. Yet it’s so tempting to just keep your head down, not to address what needs addressing, and haemorrhage away productivity. The irony is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – the team member (at any level, including manager) will achieve worse results from a state of anxiety, and better results from a state of calm.

Teams supporting each other

Perspective shifts like these are how we all break free of trains of thought that subconsciously drag down the mood of everyone. People don’t deliberately choose moods like these to share around, they occur automatically, based on our history and life experiences so far.

But the triggers that set your (or your team’s) subconscious state of mind are not set in stone. Teammates can break a pattern, and the manager can lead by example by permitting time and space for conversations about the impact of emotions on performance, and about helping each other with positive and negative states.

For example, a simple act like asking a team to score how they’re feeling about a decision helps. Everyone gets to distinguish between those that may make logical sense, but don’t make colleagues feel good, (so may suffer implementation difficulties and need tweaking) from those that make logical and emotional sense and put wind in the team’s sails (and sales).

Similarly, surfacing emotions helps to reveal patterns within the team, which can work in the team’s favour or against it. For example, a collaborative culture generates pride, and generates new answers too. A safe and supportive culture surfaces mutual concerns and interests, which keeps people feeling good, and keeping their eyes on the objectives.

On the other hand, if it feels like a task-focused team with little collaboration, following orders, that creates a negative mood. This can be hard to break, without outside help.

Clarity of purpose

Purpose can make a huge difference. Humans are sociable (even the anti-social ones), and we enjoy cooperating on a worthwhile endeavour. If we can’t see a clear purpose, it feels like putting bricks in a wall – dull, uninspiring. If the purpose is inspiring, humans can achieve the impossible. You might not believe it sometimes, but your team is made up of humans. (Clarity is covered in more depth in our next blog, published next week.)

Our emotions are intelligently signalling when we’re caught up on trains of thought that aren’t helpful. Seen this way, we needn’t fear them. Best to air them instead. That’s when we see those trains more clearly and we create space for new thinking to arise that lifts both moods and performance. That, to us, is emotional intelligence.

Thank you to our members who are reaching out with fantastically helpful articles pitches like this one. Another CMI member wrote an article on why you shouldn’t overlook your team’s mental health right now.

Dr Hugo Minney CMgr is co-chair of the benefits and value special interest group at the Association for Project Management, and chair of the British Standards Institute (BSI) panel developing the standard for benefits management. Roger Martin is co-founder of The Mindset Difference and a specialist in helping teams create a collaborative culture.

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